Orthodox Women Talk: Roundtable about media consumption

OWTHi, everyone! I know I pretty much never post twice in a day, but I’m hosting this month’s Orthodox Women Talk. Our panelists include:

  • Tali Simon
  • Melissa Amster
  • Ruchi Koval
  • Rivki Silver
  • Keshet Starr
  • Estee Lavitt
  • and yours truly.

This month’s question is this:

How much do you engage in popular music, movies and other forms of entertainment? What factors have contributed to that choice?

Wow! We’ve got a lot of variety in responses. Let’s see what our roundtable panelists have to say...

Tali Simon

How much do I engage in all that? Well, mostly I don’t. But sometimes I do.

 tali simonHere’s how I see it:
Secular/mainstream movies and music are powerful things. Once you see something, those images can stick around for a long time. Once you hear something, the words can bop around in your mind for way longer than you’d like. I know that I remember a particularly graphic scene from a movie that I partially saw maybe 10 years ago. Partially, because as soon as I saw that scene, I was so horrified that I turned it off. But it stuck. That’s just how these things work.
Because of that, I know how important it is to fill my eyes and ears and mind with G-rated material at the very least, and positive, good, Torah material at the very best. After all, my husband only has one wife, and my kids only have one mother. I don’t want that person to be influenced by things that are not consistent with Torah values.
Having said all that, I do believe in there being a time and a place for an adult (who can filter content appropriately) to use TV/YouTube as an outlet or a way to wind down. Ever heard of the show 19 Kids and Counting? That’s how I chill out from a 14-hour day with the kids. I actually think that show has helped me appreciate my kids more (as you can imagine, no couple would have 19 kids without believing that each one is a huge blessing). I also listen to some mainstream music with my kids — though I mean things like Beatles songs. (As a newborn, my son always calmed down when I played “Here Comes the Sun!”) But we definitely also use YouTube to listen to Shabbos songs all week long, things like that. Kids are little sponges. They absorb whatever we give them. Gotta make it good.
Tali Simon is a writer, editor, and food blogger living near the Dead Sea. She loves to cook, her skinny husband loves to eat, and their two kids are rather unpredictable. Check out Tali’s vegetarian recipes, weekly menu plans, and stories about life in Israel at More Quiche, Please.

Melissa Amster

I engage in music, movies, TV, and other forms of entertainment all the time. I’m a pop-culture addict. I basically grew up watching TV, listening to music, and going to movies all the time. I love all types of music from modern rock, to classic rock, to Rat Pack era, to Broadway, to country. I also have a book blog that celebrates chick lit novels called Chick Lit Central (http://chicklitcentral.com). I talk about pop culture a lot there, as well as at my personal blog.

melissa amsterIn my community, a lot of people watch TV, movies, etc. Some go to rock concerts, Broadway shows, etc. I recently got a friend, who is also Modern Orthodox, addicted to the TV series Orphan Black. Another friend in the community says she likes hip hop and rap music. One of my close friends in the community loves the musical Rent as much as I do and we exchange People and Entertainment Weekly magazines with each other. I have deep discussions via Facebook about Glee with a friend who is slightly more observant than I am (we originally became close because of our shared love for this show when it first premiered).

So I think [my approach] is [as much] about me being raised Reform and watching Saturday morning cartoons as it is about the social factors involved with liking certain TV shows, movies, music groups, etc. There’s such a mix involved when it comes to all things pop culture.

Melissa Amster lives in Maryland (DC Metro area) with her husband, two sons and daughter. When she’s not reading and interviewing authors for her book blog, she works for a Jewish non-profit. In her spare time (what’s that?!?), she likes to watch her favorite shows on TV, bake challah, and desserts, and host meals and other gatherings. Check out her personal blog and follow her on Twitter.

Ruchi Koval

Actually I feel this is a really personal question… but I’ll answer it anyway 🙂

ruchi kovalUnlike many of my friends, I am living my Judaism in pretty much the identical way I was raised, with one notable difference: I engage in a lot less of music, movies, and other forms of entertainment.

We had a TV growing up, as did most of my friends. We had a pretty small whitelist of watchable shows (I’m about to date myself): the Cosby Show, Family Ties, and the weekly Disney Movie. Oh, and PBS. Which aside from the Electric Company, didn’t matter much, although I still do have a true love for Sesame Street, which taught me how to read at a very young age. But of course I’d babysit and whatnot, and managed to get in plenty of episodes of the bad stuff like Three’s Company and, during visits to my grandparents, The Young and the Restless. Plus, being a voracious reader and music aficionado, Sweet Valley High, Judy Blume, and plenty of ’80s music worked their way into my life.
All this changed during my year in Israel. Away from secular culture (this is not the case for our kids anymore, in the post-internet age) it became clear to me what effect those media were having on my soul and how they colored my views of relationships, of beauty, of satisfaction. Being away from TV for months at a time made me realize, when I did watch, how vapid it was. I actually felt my intelligence being insulted while watching stupid commercials and unfunny sitcoms with bad acting. I made a conscious decision to stop reading secular fiction, a commitment I uphold until today, unless it’s highly recommended and PG. I’ve also made a commitment not to watch any movies rated higher than PG – and I’m often horrified by what flies in PG stuff.
I’m aware that this sounds extreme to some, or perhaps it may seem I am overly sensitive.  If that’s the case, I hope I always remain overly sensitive. I want violence to always bother me. I want bad language to rankle. I want provocatively-dressed women and conversation to feel inappropriate and insensitive to women’s dignity.
Yet, I fully understand that each person will draw their lines in different places.

Ruchi Koval is an Orthodox Jewish woman.  Married, 7 kids.  Yeah, you heard right.  

She co-founded and directs the Jewish Family Experience, a family education center and Sunday school located in Cleveland, Ohio. She is also a certified parenting coach, runs character-development groups for women, and is a motivational speaker. 

Ruchi wants nothing short of global Jewish unity.  Join the conversation with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Google plus, or email her at ruchi@outoftheorthobox.com.

Rivki Silver

This has been a constantly evolving dance in my life. When I first became observant, I chucked out a lot of my old music, books and swore off movies and TV. But as I met other women who had become observant who still watched movies or listened to secular music, I started to reintegrate some entertainment back into my life.
rivkiWhen my husband and I were dating, we discussed how we wouldn’t play secular music in our house, not in front of the children at least. Now, as I listen to how my children will pick up the lyrics to a song and sing them over and over, I’m glad we made that decision. I would much rather have my children singing words of Torah that anything from the Beatles White Album (which is genius, musically speaking, but still not something I want to share with my kids until they are older). But we do let our children watch DVDs, including Ninjago, which is certainly not the gold standard of good behavior. My two-year-old was walking around calling people “airhead” the other day because she heard it on Ninjago, so my husband and I decided to take that off the approved list and stick to PBS Kids for now.
My husband and I will go to a movie on occasion (like when we’re visiting family and have free babysitting), though more often we have in-house movie night, and I’ll make popcorn, we’ll take the desktop monitor and set it up in front of the couch and enjoy. It’s tricky to find movies that don’t have too much sex or violence, so we watch a lot of Pixar.
As for television (and by television I mean Hulu, Netflix or Amazon Prime), it seems like if I want good writing, I have to put up with unsavory language or content. If I want something clean, I have to sacrifice writing. That’s led to me watching a lot of popular shows with a lot of conflicted feelings. Over the past year or so I’ve stopped watching television series, and that has been a good choice for me. I no longer feel guilty about what I’m watching, and I also have a lot more free time to create!
With books, I vacillate between reading only “kosher” Jewish books or only well-written mainstream books. I love a good book, and that means I will usually put up with the language or sex if the content is otherwise excellent. It’s been difficult to find a well-written book without either of those things, unfortunately.
I would love to only watch or read things that have clean language and PG-rated content, but it’s hard to find. I am constantly finding a balance between enjoying the artistry of media from the outside world while distancing myself from content that I feel is inappropriate for me. I do believe that I’m affected by what I imbibe, so I strive to at least make choices that are moving in a direction I’m happy with. I would love to reach a point where all my entertainment is neatly aligned with a Torah outlook, but I am certainly not there just yet.
Rivki Silver has spent most of her life immersed in the study of music, but for the past six years has been learning about marriage and motherhood.  She writes about relationships, parenthood, music and religion, as seen through the lens of an Orthodox Jewish woman.  Her writing can be found on Kveller.com, Aish.com, PartnersinTorah.org, as well as her blog, LifeintheMarriedLane.com.  You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Keshet Starr

My main goal when it comes to all forms of media is to use them intentionally. I don’t think TV or music or any other medium is all good or all bad–it’s just important to use it thoughtfully, especially because technology has a real way of sucking you in! When I was a freshman in college, I made the decision not to buy a TV for my dorm–and years later, as a now-religious woman, I keep to the same choice. While I do watch some TV shows online, I find that watching online allows me to pick and choose which shows I watch and also to watch them on my schedule, rather than winding up watching something just because it was on. My favorite shows are HGTV and random reality/documentary shows about interesting cultures, like 19 Kids & Counting, National Geographic series, and basically anything involving Amish people.  My husband often works late, so having a show I enjoy to watch while I relax and eat dinner is really helpful in keeping me from feeling too lonely.

I will be the first one to say, though, and I’m not holding exactly where I want to be on this issue. Part of why I loved this question is that it really made me think, and although that kind of introspection can be a uncomfortable, I think it’s such a critical part of Jewish life. Although I’m extremely careful in what I expose my children to (especially in terms of TV and the radio), this will make me think much more about what I expose myself to, as well!

Keshet Starr is an Orthodox wife and mom who works as an attorney and moonlights as a scrapbooker, blogger, photographer, baker, reader, writer, and lover of all things creative! She lives in New Jersey with her fellow-attorney husband and two young children. When she isn’t taking care of her to-do list, indulging in a hobby, or sipping a hot latte, she likes to think about the deeper things in life and connect with others. Keshet blogs at www.keshetstarr.com and Instagrams at @keshetstarr.

Estee Lavitt:

It’s difficult to strike a balance between maintaining a religious insular life and participating in the culture that surrounds us in order to be worldly and informed.

EsteeGrowing up in a Modern Orthodox home, I went to movies. In high school I was inspired to stop going to the theater and watching movies, trying to intensify my religious devotion. While I have watched many movies since, I have not returned to the theater, maintaining a level of separation from the culture of movies. If I want to see a movie so badly, I have to wait until it comes out on DVD. I often skip movies because I forget and just don’t think about it much. I’ve learned to separate myself from the need to go see a movie and I find this is not a difficult boundary to keep. Today’s movies are not what I was watching at a young age, and I do not want my own children watching them. It’s important to me to keep the standards I want for my children. Therefore, movies are not part of our lives. We entertain ourselves in other ways, stretching the imagination and doing activities that keep us moving and simulated.

As far as music goes, the same applies. If Taylor Swift has the most wholesome lyrics out there, you know you’re in trouble. I don’t want the attitudes of love and lust that pop music espouse to become the norm for my children. Though Jewish music may leave a lot to be desired, I’d rather have words of Torah wisdom and prayers stuck in my head. I struggle with this because the Jewish music scene needs more talent and creativity. I try to teach my kids the classics and sing Jewish songs at home to instill a love of music and Jewish culture.

I hope my kids will be able to strike the right balance, to be worldly and knowledgeable while staying true to their roots and religion. They’ll find their own path. I just hope I give them the appropriate tools to do so.

Estee Lavitt likes to blog about her journey through life with her 4 children and amazing husband. She is a working mother who loves cooking (too much!), photography (just learning) and playing with her kids (too cute!).Check out her blog at www.esteelavitt.com.

Rebecca Klempner

Becca at angleWhen I was a teen, I watched hours of TV daily. As soon as I shut the TV off, I switched on the radio. And if I had the day off, I could watch four videos back-to-back. Even before I became totally observant, I realized that the exorbitant amount of TV-viewing and movie-watching I was engaging in was for me (emphasis: for me) not coming from the healthiest place. It was a way to escape reality and to avoid dealing with unpleasant emotions, such as boredom, shyness, frustration, and sadness.

The more I learned to connect with people and engage in non-media-related activities, the less heavily I relied on my crutch. Later, when I became a teacher, I noticed how my students were affected by TV. After reading up on the subject, I became very skeptical of children’s programming on television, very critical of Disney films, and much more sensitive to commercialism, foul language, and violence overall. Don’t get me started on video games.

Eventually, I became observant, but I didn’t abandon movies right away. I just became more selective. When I met my husband, he shared many of my concerns, and we decided not to have a TV in our home. Occasionally, we watched movies at the theater or videos with friends at their houses. Initially, I listened to the same music I always did.

When we became parents (over a decade ago), our media consumption became a bigger issue. My husband and I realized that we couldn’t expect our kids to refrain from movie-viewing and listening to music with lyrics containing swear words and crazy messages if we continued to do so. We were most concerned about messages that promoted the myth of infatuation, suggested materialistic goals, highlighted superficial beauty over the inner kind, or poked fun at some people for the benefit of others.

Things in the Klempner household currently stand like this:

  • We still have no TV (and no Hulu, Netflix, or the like).
  • We don’t go to the movie theater, unless you count documentaries (think IMAX at the California Science Center) or Jewish-themed films like those of Robin Saex Garbose.
  • The Kids: My children read secular books and magazines that either my husband, another trusted source, or myself have previewed. Reading material we actually own will be altered by my Sharpie if they contain foul language or mature concepts. The kids occasionally watch a video online that is not Jewish – generally Nova or something else off PBS – if my husband or I have pre-screened it. The secular music they listen to is classical or pre-screened (as in, we listen to Bob Marley singing “Three Little Birds” but not Jane’s Addiction singing, well, anything).
  • Me: I sometimes listen to oldies in the car on Fridays on the way to carpool, if I’m particularly tired or cranky. I listen to lots of Jewish music, jazz, classical, and world music while writing, doing laundry or dishes. From time to time, I’ll listen to something more recent, but not if it contains bad language. When a new hit song appears on the charts, I usually have no idea until it gets remade into a Jewish one by the Maccabeats. Mostly, I read YA if I read secular fiction. I’ll occasionally read books with a bit of foul language, but if more than one or two F-bombs get dropped or there are excessive violence or racy scenes, in general I’ll take the book back to the library unfinished, with some exceptions. On Shabbos, I only read Jewish books. If I’m sick or folding five loads of laundry two days before Pesach, I might indulge in a bit of PBS online and wish there were more Jewish movies that actually targeted adult audiences.
  • Mr. K.: My husband’s consumption of secular media is WAAAAAY less than mine or the kids. He feels it’s bittul Torah, and I’m not going to argue with that.

Rebecca Klempner blogs right here at rebeccaklempner.com. She is an Orthodox Jew, wife, mother, writer, and editor in Los Angeles. You can find her writing online and in the print world in places like Binah, Tablet, Hamodia, and The Jewish Home L.A.

You’ve heard what we have to say…now we’d love to hear from you. Do you consider yourself an observant Jew, or an observant member of another faith? Does this effect your media consumption? Please share your questions or comments with us! And if you have a question for a future edition of Orthodox Women Talk, please share that below, as well.

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3 thoughts on “Orthodox Women Talk: Roundtable about media consumption

  1. I missed getting to the email for this question in time, but I suppose I can leave my thoughts down here. Sorry, it turned out really long. I’m very sad that I didn’t contribute, especially because it looks like I would have been the only non-mom (and it seems most have young children at home). One of the biggest struggles I faced with becoming orthodox was that I didn’t have role models at the same stage of life. While going to a party college on the beach, it was hard to see how a single 19-23 year old frum woman would act and dress when I only had access to retirees and moms 10-30 years older than me. So I feel that having a non-mom’s perspective here is very important to show what an orthodox life might look like for those without kids underfoot.

    As several people have mentioned above, I think becoming a mother changes many woman’s consumption of secular media and entertainment, and that’s not just in the Jewish community. I am far more engaged with secular media that most of the answers above, and I’m sure that would be different if I had children. For one, I wouldn’t have the time to read like I do now: I’ve already read 35 books this year (it’s Feb. 18), and I read 240 and 304 in 2014 and 2013, respectively. What mom (or fully employed person) has the time for that?? And let’s not even get into my husband’s gaming obsession.

    Many might consider me an apikores, but I believe strongly that Torah Umaddah (Torah and secular learning) applies to absolutely everything we encounter in life. I don’t believe that “bad” language or uncomfortable situations of violence or sex are necessarily something that should prevent me from watching/reading/listening to something. If that were the case, I’d have never watched Hotel Rwanda or the documentaries I’ve watched about sex trafficking. I wish I could live my life detached from violence and sex (and how often those two are entertwined!), but I can’t. And I don’t wish that from a religious perspective; I’d like to walk away because it’s hard and it’s depressing. But I believe I have a religious obligation to know about the bad in this world so I can combat it however I can. I’m very interested in social justice, and I couldn’t be as knowledgeable as I need to be without exposing myself to things the orthodox Jews (especially mothers) try to insulate themselves from. Unfortunately, exposing myself to these bad stories can also act as a kick in the tuchus to get back to work when I’ve become complacent. Likewise, I also read or watch things about veganism or vegetarianism or weight loss success stories when I feel weak in my new-ish plant-based diet. Chizuk isn’t just for religious emotions!

    As for “bad” language… I’m a trained socio-linguist. I believe language is what we (and society) make it. And sometimes that means the only appropriate word I know to express my feelings is the F bomb. I have often heard (not just from Jews) that means my language is limited or my feelings are crass, and that if only I were a better person, I would know a better word. Given how much I read, I hope you don’t think I’m lacking vocabulary! I think we all agree that Fudge! is the exact same intent and meaning of F! I don’t want my hypothetical future children to learn either word as an expletive, but does that mean I don’t believe there’s a space for that in adult expression? No. Some things in life are horrible enough to deserve the strongest language in my arsenal, and hopefully my theoretical children will not encounter many of those situations until they’re older. How I’m going to balance that if I ever have children is an open question, of course.

    As for all that reading I do, I read primarily non-fiction: history, science, religion (all religions), etc. For instance, my (non-Jewish) step-brother leans toward Buddhist belief. He has spent a lot of time and effort learning about Judaism, so it’s only fair I learn about Buddhism, in my opinion. I’ve learned there’s a reason there are so many JewBuus in the world: Buddhist writers are really great at conveying Jewish ideas and values (whether or not the JewBuus are aware of it). Unfortunately, many “frum” Jewish writers write in an inaccessible and stilted prose that can be difficult for people who don’t know Hebrew (and thus primary sources). Because of the Artscroll monopoly, it’s hard to find nuanced or modern orthodox-promoting writings. (Yay Jonathan Sacks for working on that though!) On the other hand, I have found many pop-Buddhism books are teaching the same values and actions in a way I can better understand. Apikores? Probably. But I’m tired of feeling “less than” for being modern orthodox. I feel equally strongly that an insular lifestyle is antithetical to Judaism, but only after death will we learn which one of us was right.

    I follow pop culture because I spend a lot of time on Facebook, and most of my Facebook friends aren’t Jewish orthodox (or even Jewish). So there’s exposure, and that exposure does help keep me from feeling or looking like an alien in conversations with friends who are more deeply immersed in secular culture. And being interested in those kinds of things is “acceptable” in my peer group in the modern orthodox community, but I think there is a big push towards living intentionally and mindfully in our society today. Or maybe I just hang out with a lot of nerds. I tend to think most pop culture today is vapid and a waste of time. Yet I am a sinkhole of pop culture and music knowledge of my childhood, and I’m very proud of the obscure references I can work into conversation. Humans aren’t always very consistent.

    I’m not a big fan of fiction, but sometimes I read it, especially if I’ve read too many hard-hitting books in a row. Most of the fiction I read happens to be historical fiction or science fiction. Of all things, I’ve become addicted to post-apocalyptic fiction, which is definitely filled with bad language and violence and sometimes sex. However, even there, there are things I can learn: self-reliance techniques for my own life (“how to MacGuyver stuff”), think about how people react in stressful situations, how “good” characters are able to make the best out of the truly worst, etc. My own life has been very difficult over the last 3 years, yet it’s still nothing compared to the struggles in a zombie wasteland. Perhaps I could read inspirational orthodox women’s books, you might say. Unfortunately, I usually find those books to be shallow and dismissive of my experience. Also, I find the stories to be simplistic, cheesy, predictable, and like a frum version of bodice-rippers in writing quality. “If only you had more emunah, you would feel better!” they seem to cry. Maybe that’s true, but that’s not how you get Skylars to have more emunah. So I use what works for me. Perhaps because of my upbringing, I learn best from negative examples.

    I grew up in an atheistic non-Jewish household in the Bible Belt. If you can believe it, I was watching Quentin Tarantino movies by the age of 9 because my parents would make me. (Yes, really, they thought it was THAT good.) I should be really messed up by the predictions of many wholesome-parenting advocates, yet I’m pretty normal and compassionate. Because of my experiences with really messed up pop culture from a very young age (and an abusive situation generally), I know that a slip here and there won’t harm my children as much as the Mommy Wars would make me fear. The TV was always on in the background (and it still is at my parents’), even during meals. I get drawn into TV so easily, and it wastes my time. So after my first year of college, I couldn’t afford cable (first year the dorm provided it), and I haven’t had it since. Except one year of law school when my roommates HAD to have it. So I don’t really watch TV, and it’s not for a religious reason. In fact, I made these decisions long before orthodoxy was a realistic option for my life (primarily due to that lack of role models). I feel really weird when people ask me whether I have a TV as a “quick way” to sort me in an orthodox box. I don’t (sorta), but that doesn’t mean what the asker wants it to mean. I don’t usually go to movie theaters either because they’re a financial rip-off and I can’t eat the food anyway. Yet I will go to a theater to support movies I think should be supported. For example, Selma or Israeli cinema. People of all stripes are eschewing wasteful media, whether or not they’re acquainted with Torah. And there’s the bigger push towards viewing secular media from a feminist perspective, which will probably be the far bigger driver in what I show or don’t show my children. One of my biggest problems with pop culture today is the objectification and demeaning of women, which I think is something my Torah exposure has influenced, but plenty of people without Torah feel the same.

    The question is how do each of us define “wasteful media”? My definition is different from many orthodox Jew’s, and I don’t necessarily do it for religious reasons, but I would say that it is no less intentional and purposeful. Is what media we expose ourselves to solely a religious question? I know many non-religious people who would come to the same conclusions about most wasteful media as orthodox Jews or evangelical Christians do. Should it be a religious question at all? Is there a distinction between religion and values, and if so, what is it? I don’t know. Many of my values were formed by the time I learned anything about Torah, and I haven’t found a lot of change since Torah exposure except in a few areas. My suspicion is that, at least in my case, religion informs my values and may even give me parameters, but I don’t believe that is the sole source of my values education. Torah Umaddah again.

    That “waste of time” feeling is also why I don’t turn on a TV. I actually own a TV (used to own 2 until I sold one on Craigslist), but I haven’t even plugged it in for 3 years. However, I do watch some TV, especially when I’m sick or fasting, but I can go weeks without it. (I’m surprised no one mentioned the massive orthodox binge-watching that happens on fast days!) On the other hand, my husband and I use TV shows on our laptops as a way to spend time together with something we both enjoy, primarily sci-fi like Doctor Who and Star Trek (I’m watching ST for the first time). Even the things that appear to have no explicit Torah education can be an excellent education in Torah values (or what Torah values should *not* be). I believe this causes me to have a deeper internalization of Torah values when I confront secular situations and need to discern the deeper realities myself. Doing this through media, a controlled environment of sorts, allows me to more effectively approach these questions in real life with real people, many of whom know nothing about “Torah values.” And I hope that being myself with those people can be a kiddush Hashem. I believe that is a large part of my mission in this world, and I couldn’t do that if I lived an insular life or in an insular community.

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